Zero Population is the Answer, My Friend . . .

February 9, 2009
By

Thought I’d catch your attention with that line from “Saturday’s Warrior,” the bane (or bastion, if you don’t know what you’re talking about) of Mormon doctrine.*  There was an interesting article in NYT about how children can negatively impact marriages.  So, what’s the real scoop on these tiny little homewreckers?  Read on . . .

The article pointed to some flawed gems of conventional wisdom:

  • Kids cement marital happiness.  Definitely not always true.  (see below)
  • Empty nesters feel bereft and abandoned.  You wish!  Now that you’re gone, they can get down to doing all the stuff they’ve been putting off for 20 years:  travelling, reading, rock climbing, key parties, whatever.
  • There was more quality family time back in the “good old days.”  Not at all.  Studies show that parents spend much more time with kids than they used to spend back when housework took over twice as long.  Even in homes where both parents work, kids often get more quality time with BOTH parents than those of previous generations.  Debunked!

So, how are these little rugrats destroying marriages, at least in today’s environment, and are Mormons more prone to these problems due to our focus on families?  According to the article:

  1. Having kids when you either don’t want them or are ambivalent about them can be disastrous for a marriage.  Do people succumb to pressure to have kids when they don’t want them? 
  2. Having kids to solidify a rocky marriage (seriously, do people still do this?) is likely to backfire (to which I say “duh!”).  Do people honestly think it will all work out if they just have kids?
  3. Slipping into “traditional” roles as anything other than a matter of choice leads to resentment from both spouses and rocky marriages.  Do people get sucked into traditional roles against their choice?
  4. Spending too much time helicoptering over your kids and not enough time together as a couple or in adults-only time weakens marriages.  Are we so focused on kids that we forget adult time?

It’s no secret the church advocates traditional roles, is pro-procreation (when will the earth be plenished already?), and encourages family time.  Do Mormon couples experience these 4 pitfalls more frequently as a result, about the same, or less than others?  Are these issues we should be concerned about?  Do you know people for whom these issues have cause major marital strife?  If there is pressure that causes people to act outside their best interests, from whence does that pressure come, and how should it be dealt with.  My view is there are 3 kinds of pressure:

  • External.  This is pressure from society, church, or family (other than spouse) to do what they want you to do or think is best for you.  It is best taken with a grain of salt if it conflicts with either of the next two.
  • Intra-Marriage.  This is pressure from your spouse to do what s/he desires OR possibly what s/he thinks is best for you.  This is why people need to go into a marriage with their eyes wide open and full disclosure on things like kids & careers.  But you have to do what you both can to accomodate and understand one another and arrive at a common place.
  • Internal.  These are your feelings and desires and even your expectations of yourself and others.  It could be biological clock stuff, perfectionism, or your life’s goals and dreams.  You have to be true to yourself and to learn to love yourself and others, even when your desires may differ.  This is stuff you have to work through alone or in prayer as well as with your spouse, but ultimately, it’s up to you.

That’s my way of looking at things, anyway.  But yours may differ.  Discuss.

*If you’ve never heard of “Zero Population” before, that’s because the last time that term was used was before Donny Osmond had armpit hair.

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16 Responses to Zero Population is the Answer, My Friend . . .

  1. MH
    February 9, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    My wife and I got married older (32). I felt a dramatic change if our marriage when my wife got pregnant the first time, and it wasn’t for the better. (We’re on #3 now.) My wife comes from a very traditional TBM family, and in many ways she is TBM as well. However, she never enjoyed babysitting and a kid, and doesn’t really enjoy taking care of babies.

    I always felt that the reason we had kids was so that she would feel like she wasn’t sinning. I was real happy when our first child was born, but admittedly, he was much harder to raise than I ever imagined. I’ve discovered that neither one of us enjoy parenthood as much as we’re told we are supposed to in church. I’m much less susceptible to peer pressure than my wife. For this reason, we’ve kept our family small, (but the bio clock has an impact as well.)

    I’m sure I’ll catch a lot of flak, but I think that people who don’t enjoy being parents shouldn’t have a ton of kids.

  2. February 9, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    “Now that you’re gone, they can get down to doing all the stuff they’ve been putting off for 20 years”

    Actually (according to marital research John Gottman) the empty nest period is one of the periods of high(er) risk for divorce (the other two are the first 7 years of marriage, and when the oldest child becomes a teenager.

    I think some amount of ambivalence about having kids is natural and should be expected. The presence of ambivalence may signal that the person is ready for change–most changes involve ambivalence. However, you and the article are correct to point out that kids WILL NOT solidify a rocky marriage. Most likely, it will get worse (although I can think of one anecdotal story where the marriage was falling apart, and the baby has seemed to really save it—that is not usually the case, however). 2/3 of all wives experience a SIGNIFICANT decrease in marital satisfaction after the first baby is born. This is usually because the husband has not fully got on board with the new life.

    As for being focused on the kids, that is a good point as well. We all have been told a bazillion times that the best thing you can do for your kids is to have a strong marriage. Regarding time, every couple is different, but 1 date a week and 3-4 weekend/overnight getaways a year (without the kids) is recommended. Personally, I don’t think it’s in the amount of dates or getaways, but in the quality of the emotional connection that occurs during them.

    Regarding Intra-marriage pressure and entering a marriage with eyes open, I think the most important task of being engaged is to learn how you future spouse talks about difficult issues. Sure, you can try to work out the really big things just to be sure, but there are going to be things that come up in the future regardless, and if your spouse doesn’t know how to talk about them without getting too escalated, or withdrawing, you may want to think twice. Couples have the 69% of the same problems when they’re 80 as they did when they were engaged. The difference is how the talk/how they deal with them.

    My three cents.

  3. February 9, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    MH – I agree with you. Keeping a commandment because you don’t want to feel like you’re sinning may be fine in some cases, but bringing a child into the world is serious business. Personally and professionally, I don’t think everyone should be having kids, or a lot of kids. For those who would otherwise be great parents, but are just being selfish (not pointing at you, but others), I think the commandment to “multiply and replenish” is very beneficial. It’s not easy. The day my son was born was really hard. I was not particularly happy, despite the fact that we planned it all. I was very overwhelmed. However, day by day it got better and now I love it. We’re probably going to have #2 in a year or two, god willing. I guess my point is that many people don’t think they want kids, or feel ambivalent about it, but sometimes it’s a real leap of faith. I really couldn’t know what it would be like until I had an attachment to one of my own.

  4. February 9, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    MH:

    (FYI: I have been married for almost 7 years, and we have two kids, so I’m not an expert, but not a rookie, either.)

    To me, I can only understand how I actually do enjoy being a parent by considering separately “marginal utility” and “total utility.” The fact is, the marginal utility of time with my kids is almost zero–and I think this is the case for most parents, most of the time: We all love our kids, but would do almost anything to get away from them for an evening. Or a week. Being called to be their teacher in primary is almost too nauseating to think about. Yet I enjoy being a parent. Why?

    The total utility of children is extremely high to me–watching them over a long period of time, seeing them grow, learn, develop, and become agents unto themselves is fascinating, entertaining, gut-wrenching, and heartwarming all at the same time. The idea of having all of my time with my children taken away from me is far worse than the sick feeling of being asked to be in charge of sharing time.

    Marginal utility and total utility: More time with the kids? Meh. No time with the kids? Devastating.

  5. Ray
    February 9, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    My philosophy is quite simple:

    Couples should marry when both feel they are ready to marry – and when there is a reasonable chance that they can provide for themselves and future children. They shouldn’t wait to be able to provide comfort, but they should be moving toward that state.

    Couples should have as many kids as they want and they can handle – in all ways (financially, emotionally, mentally, etc.) If that means none, that means NONE; if it means twelve, it means TWELVE. (I believe it never means 14 kids under the age of 8, especially when the mother is living with her parents and can’t support them on her own – but the situation with the recent octuplets highlights the extreme. That doctor’s license should be revoked, and the doctor should be required to pay child support.)

    Is there pressure of all the types listed in the post? Certainly. Should there be pressure of all the types listed in the post? For men, definitely; for women, a little. Sometimes, pressure is the only thing that gets people to do things they should do. Should the pressure dictate specifics? Never. That’s my take, anyway.

    Oh, and “self-control not birth control” is a stupid concept. I hope we’ve moved past that lunacy by now. We have six kids, after a spiritual two-by-four upside my head made me realize we weren’t done at five, but every one of them is perfectly planned. I thank God, as the source from whence all blessings flow, for birth control.

  6. Rigel Hawthorne
    February 9, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    Do people get sucked into traditional roles against their choice?

    My grandfather lost his first wife and 2 kids to tuberculosis and a 12 year old to appendicitis. He remarried and started over. My parents loved parenting, to the degree that I could tell, but they were not saturated with the media portraying many alternatives to the work of rearing a family.

    Our perspective is much different. We have so many more options now to consider. How different would it be if we were blind to the options and having children was just the way it was. I am grateful for each one of my children. For years, it seemed I wouldn’t find the right woman to marry. (I am in one of those marriages Hawkgrrl frowns upon–older man/younger woman). Then I was told by a surgeon that I would probably never father children naturally. (Wrong). Even with these miracles into my life, I still wonder, when fatigue creeps in, how my parents kept a smile on their face and appeared to enjoy it day in and day out.

  7. hawkgrrrl
    February 9, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Rigel – “I am in one of those marriages Hawkgrrl frowns upon–older man/younger woman” When did I say I frown upon that? (I do generally, FWIW, but when did I SAY that?)

  8. February 9, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    1. In my experience, it is a pretty small minority, in or out of the Church, that does not want children. If one does not want them, one should definitely not have them. It is understood that they are a big commitment, right? They are wonderful but exhausting.

    2. I suppose there are some who think having one or more children with save or improve their marriage. These people are called, “crazy.” That said, I am sure there are a lot of LDS people who think, “Having Children = Keeping the Commandments. Keeping the Commandments = Happiness. Ergo, Having Children = Happiness.” It goes without saying that there are some serious flaws in this logic.

    3. I married a woman who was adamant, adamant I say, about not falling into traditional gender roles. I was fine with that. She worked full time after #1, part time after #2 and is now (after #3) a SAHM. She is pretty happy with that; I am pretty happy with that. (As I look back, I am surprised at how happy we both are with it). But, I think we feel like we chose the path we are on, which is important. Not every family will or should divide its labor this way, but the Proclamation on the Family (as shorrthand for all the Mormon cultural influence about gender and family) pushes Mormons in this direction. Honestly, it probably pushed us a bit.

    4. Adult time? What adult time? I am not sure I think Mormons are worse about this than anyone else. We did not invent “helicopter parenting,” and not many non-Mormon men I know get semi-annual reminders to have date nights and keep “courting” (did I ever “court”) their wife.

  9. Rigel Hawthorne
    February 9, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    when did I SAY that??

    Oh, it was a long time ago, in a post far far away. Something about older men marrying younger women so that they can control them or something like that.

  10. hawkgrrrl
    February 9, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    Rigel-Ah, yes. That does sound like me. But you are doubtless the exception that proves the rule. :)

  11. Aboz
    February 9, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    Sometimes its all anybody can do to keep a marriage intact to let go of traditional roles and take time with having kids if they have any. I figure people need to do what they feel is right for them, and then later they may feel more of an inclination to start toward something that is more traditional. The Lord’s timing for everyone is different. I figure that the Lord has a plan of salvation for everyone, that sometimes differs from the usual “plan” we all think of, and the norms of the Church are not a one size fits all thing. On the other hand, nobody should find fault with a couple that naturally fits within the mold that the Church has constructed for the ideal either. I and my wife fit within that mold in many ways even with my idiosyncrasies and hers. And I have chosen it because I naturally desire these things, as has she. We feel that we are not forced into it. But we won’t find fault with other people that have to go their way which may be different. I’m nobody’s judge, and I’m happy I don’t have to be. I only do the “laundry list” of the Church because its right for me, and I’m worried about my own idea of salvation for me. I don’t presume to know what will lead other people to salvation, or what amount of salvation they will get in their circumstances. I know that when I read the Mormon scriptures and read about who goes to what kingdom doing this, that or the other, that applies to me only, because I can’t live other people’s lives, and certainly can’t pretend to know what mercies the Lord shows other people who don’t see things my way. I only know by what laws I will be judged by because of the course I am trying take. I might even be entirely mistaken. But I can’t spend my whole life worrying about the ultimate destiny of other people when I can only encourage and persuade those people to do what I think they ought to do. But I can’t be sad if they don’t choose that. And for all I know, the Lord himself had some other work in mind for people.

  12. MH
    February 9, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    I live in the heart of mormondom. All of my relatives are ultra-right wing, God fearing, Rush Limbaugh-Sean Hannity-Glenn Beck wanna bees. The do everything the prophet says, and then try to do more.

    So, when my wife and I decided to wait a year before having children (at our old age of 32), her family figured there must be something medically wrong with us. Her sister had a honeymoon baby, and another sister was prego within the first 6 months of marriage. Was there pressure on us? Absolutely. I think there can be tremendous peer pressure among TBM families to pro-create.

    All the in-laws love infants. Now that my kids are 4 and 6, they’re starting to get fun. Neither one of us is looking forward to the helpless infant who wakes up in the middle of the night, spews unpleasant odors from both ends, and needs constant attention. If we could just skip that part and go to the cute 4-year old stage….

  13. February 9, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    I recently started getting Mother Earth News, which I really enjoy, but they keep talking about population control, which really bothers me.

    I have three kids, and will likely have at least one more (and after that, who knows). I really enjoy my kids (most of the time), and I get great satisfaction from watching them learn new things, and seeing how they are the same and also how they are different then I was as a child.

    I’ve ended up in a fairly traditional role, although I don’t view myself as a particularly traditional person (in some ways anyway), but I’ve chosen it.

  14. February 10, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    I would never tell anyone this by way of advice, since I agree that it’s terrible advice, but I do believe having kids is what saved my marriage. Our first was unplanned and came at a very bad, very stressful time. For one thing, we weren’t getting along very well. However, having a child forced each of us to focus on something other than ourselves. Of course, this only worked because each of us hated the thought of getting divorced, even as miserable as we were. We have a good marriage now, and I’m convinced that having children strengthened it. Minus children, I’m thinking one of us might have killed the other.

    In general, I think parents nowadays feel obligated to spend as much time as possible with their families. Spouses resent each other and/or feel guilty for time spent outside the home (and away from the kids) for any reason, but especially if it’s a “selfish” reason, like hanging out with friends or spending time alone doing something enjoyable. Children need attention, but they shouldn’t be the center of the family. We forget that they need their own lives, too.

  15. Doc
    February 10, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    This study is hardly revolutionary. It’s just saying if you are unhappy, having kids won’t magically fix it.” The pitiful part is how that message is being twisted into “Having kids makes you unhappy.” Which is another thing altogether.

    Of course being a parent is hard. It’s exhausting. It is unrelenting. It is often very, very stressful. However, as someone who served a mission, made it through college and medical school, I have to note that very, very few things in life worth doing come without this kind of commitment. The idea of easy happiness and avoiding commitment is a fallacy America seems to have fallen for hook, line, and sinker these days and the idea that a survey can measure joy in the midst of sacrifice is a product of this flawed mindset.

  16. James
    February 11, 2009 at 1:35 am

    Having kids when you either don’t want them or are ambivalent about them can be disastrous for a marriage.

    IMO most young couples in their early 20′s are probably not that excited to have kids at first it takes away all their freedom – many have just graduated and are all ready on the treadmill.

    But friends of mine that are in their late 40′s or early 50′s who have never had children I think regret it.

    Even if you started out not wanting children most people who have them will look back and think its the best and most important thing I ever did!!